Danielle Smith and Jim Prentice were all smiles last December when they announced a mass defection of Wildrose MLAs to the PCs.

And why not? With one act, they had combined a party at 35 per cent in the polls with one at 30 per cent. The math looked good — unbeatable even — and the future of the PC party assured.

Except, as we all know going into the third act of the provincial election campaign, it isn't.

So what happened? How could the Wildrose rebuild so quickly on the site of this political arson? How is it possible the polls are all suggesting that the relatively unknown Brian Jean could be Alberta's next premier?

It's possible because the Wildrose was never Smith's to give away. To the surprise of cynics everywhere, the Wildrose ended up being the grassroots movement it always claimed to be.

While Smith's media-savvy persona undoubtedly catapulted the Wildrose further and faster than they otherwise would have gone, she is the creation of a low-tax, small-government revolt, not the other way around.

The broader lesson is one about networks and institutions.

Twenty-five years ago Smith's gambit might have worked, because at that time debates used to start and end when deciders decided. But today, just because a leader leads does not mean the party follows — a hard lesson that politicians are just now grappling with.

Invigorated by social media, policy debates have grown into organic, living things that never conclude and require constant management. An issue is never completely settled as long as there's one person on the internet willing to bang the drum for the other side. A cause is never really dead.

Parties truly are owned by their members and supporters now. Given all this it's also fair to ask — putting aside the sturm und drang over whether or not Liberal leader David Swann should have negotiated a merger with the Alberta Party prior to this election — could he have?

Certainly, Prentice and the PCs are learning the hard way that Smith was not the living embodiment of the Wildrose.

Messengers can be replaced and messages never die.